Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Parenting Playbook

Some of you know that I was in the Army for a little less than eight years. But you might not suspect how good I was at some of the Army things I had to do. I was an expert marksman with a rifle, pistol, and grenade (I know, you're thinking "how hard is it to be an expert at a weapon that destroys anything within a five yard radius"). I was really great at setting up defensive fighting positions. And, with all due humility and candor, I was just fabulous at land navigation. You could plunk me down in the middle of a forest or jungle somewhere, in an area completely unfamiliar to me, and with a compass and a map I could get just about anywhere I wanted to. I could use the local terrain, calculate the declinations, and understand the subtleties of contour maps to interpret exactly where I was and plot out the safest and quickest route to my destination.

At least, I could do all that if it was light out.

At night, I was pretty much useless. I had tremendous feel for how to navigate through what I could see and touch, but when I could not see it I had no underlying process to rely upon the help me make the right decisions. The soldiers who excelled at night navigation were those who understood and followed the established processes, who used the same approach every time to apply logic and procedure to situations in which I could only use feel. It was impressive and intimidating, to say the least. Ultimately, because most troop movement occurs at night, the folks who excelled at night navigation were more valuable than I was. In that situation, their adherence and trust of the navigation process and doctrine was the best way, even with its limitations.

In other applications, though, reliance on doctrine can be restricting and dangerous. Take parenting, for example. Gathering information, ideas, and best practices helps us open our eyes and minds to all sorts of ideas we never would have thought possible, which is great. But when our choices become strictly dogmatic and unwavering, well then things get interesting.

Here's an example of what I mean. In my last post, I wrote the following in response to a note I received that indicated I was raising my kids to live in a world without consequences: suggest that my kids act without consequence is ludicrous; everything they do has a consequence of some type. Our consequences, however, are not punishments - they are simply the natural, logical extensions of what is, with the parent alongside them to coach and support them through.

After I wrote that, I recalled a term I had heard a few years ago called "natural consequences." I had always assumed that natural consequences meant that every action has a consequence, and that as long as the parent isn't forcing the consequence - instead, letting it occur naturally - they would be following the idea pretty closely. Now, I'm pretty much a "no punishment" kind of guy and am of the belief that when a child makes a mistake, the consequence should be - well - natural. For example, grounding someone isn't really a logical consequence of any behavior. Forcing a child to clean up a mess they made is not, in my mind, natural either. But based on what I wrote, I wanted to check myself a bit. So out I toddled to the internet to see what the experts had to say. In short, I was disturbed. I agreed with some of the things I read, but vehemently disagreed with others. There were entire websites dedicated to natural consequences and logical consequences, with detailed primers and decision trees to help parents navigate through the myriad of choices to choose what would work best for the child.

And not one of those definitions, processes, or frameworks fit perfectly with what works best for me and my family. They were inflexible, unfeeling, and missing some critical components that I know from experience work pretty well, such as trust, coaching, and gentle patience. But there they were, guidelines on just how to be a parent who uses Natural Consequences.

When you become a parent, there are guidelines and rules everywhere. Websites, books, and pediatricians all make a ton of money by telling parents exactly what to do, and when and how to do it. They tell us what weight our child should be, or they tell us to ignore those types of measurements. They tell us which store-bought diapers to use, or why cloth diapers are better. They extol the virtues of breast feeding, and tell us which formulas are best. You name a parenting topic: education, discipline, nutrition, activities, TV, whatever - there are hundreds if not thousands of people out there who are more than willing to tell you which way is the "best" and why. I guess you could say the same thing about me as well, although paradoxically I don't view myself that way. We are virtually overflowing with advice for parents from all angles.

But before we rise up and overthrow the entire "parental advice" system, let's think about why these institutions tell us what to do. The reason is really pretty simple. They tell us what to do because we ask them to. We have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, to be sure, and we want to be sure that we have as much information as possible before we embark on something as important as raising a child. But it's more than that, I think. Not only do we want to know, we want to know how. We care about particulars, specifics, checklists, so we can be sure that we are not only doing it, but that we are doing it the right way.

There are a few problems with this, of course. There are a lot of "right" ways to raise a child, depending on your beliefs, your culture, your child, and what influences you. Many parents believe that the right way to raise a child is the Dr. Spock way. They measure their child's progress against the "norm" for physical, emotional, and intellectual attributes. They may discipline, perhaps even spank, to ensure obeisance. They serve three healthy meals a day and go to Church on Sundays, or whatever. There are also parents who live off the grid, with no vaccinations and family beds. They may prohibit plastic toys, restrict TV, reject formal schooling, and eat all organic or vegan. Instead of discipline, they believe in Natural Consequences (more on that in a moment). I suspect that most families fall somewhere in between the extremes, picking and choosing new ideas and skills to help them approach different scenarios, like a Parenting Skill Buffet. But one single right way that works for all people in all situations? Not likely.

Another problem with an over-reliance on doctrine is actually worse, in my opinion. When as parents we rely on doctrine, dogma, and process, even in attempt to do the right thing, we distance ourselves from the "feel" of parenting. As important as knowledge and information is to parenting, feel is perhaps even more critical. Think about some of the suggestions that well-intentioned parenting experts make that simply feel wrong to us. Experts tell us to let our babies cry it out, which feels so unnatural to most parents that they end up resenting themselves for ever allowing it. Experts tell us to vaccinate our children, and we allow them to inject our child with substances of unknown origin, efficacy and effects at the same time we prohibit our kids from eating McNuggets because we feel that they are unhealthy. We rely on "natural" consequences to the extent where we avoid talking to our children ahead of their actions about what they could reasonably expect - which, in turn, feels highly unnatural to us.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with learning about new ideas, melding a bit of dogma with your own personal situation to make decisions that work best for your family. But discounting the role of feel, combined with an over-reliance on information and doctrine, in our pursuit of the right way to parent is essentially unconscious parenting. There are cookbooks for baking, there are owner's manuals for appliances, and there are field guides for land navigation - but there is no single doctrine, no single framework that can fit all families all the time. In fact, there may not even be one that fits any single family all the time.

There is no Parenting Playbook. Thank goodness.

1 comment:

  1. Totally agree about how many people are distanced from the 'feel' of parenting. As a new parent I didn't trust my 'feel' or instinct and didn't realize I COULD even have that knowledge within myself and had TOO much blind trust in the outside 'expert' until I realized that the REAL expert was my CHILD and if I could learn to listen to HER, all was/is good.